Wake Up and Smell the Bio Threat

By Gottlieb, Scott | The American Enterprise, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

Wake Up and Smell the Bio Threat


Gottlieb, Scott, The American Enterprise


In August 1999, four New York City residents showed up at hospital emergency rooms complaining of headaches and dizziness. A few became paralyzed. Doctors were stumped. Botulism? A rare nerve inflammation? Scans eventually revealed that the patients all had encephalitis--an inflammation of the brain.

Eight cases and another two weeks later, the Centers for Disease Control came up with a diagnosis: St. Louis Encephalitis, a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes. Publicly, the CDC and local health agencies stuck with their diagnosis. Privately, scientists were skeptical: They tested mostly for standard diseases, not rare ones.

CDC scientists continued their research. Doctors didn't crack the case until birds started to die at the Bronx Zoo. An astute veterinarian sent a few bird brains to a friend at the Department of Agriculture. The samples ended up at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, where scientists used genetic fingerprinting to discover that it was West Nile Virus--never before detected in North America--that was making people sick. By autumn, a total of 62 people had been diagnosed with the virus, and six had died.

But less than one of every 100 people infected with West Nile actually becomes seriously ill. Only mosquitoes can spread it. America's next viral outbreak, whether natural or an act of bio-terrorism, may not be so easy on us. The official response to West Nile instills little confidence that disaster could be avoided in the case of a bio-terror attack. Right now, everything America has that was designed specifically to counter bio-terrorism is old, expensive, and slow.

The greatest threat probably comes from viruses: They are relatively easy to engineer into designer bio-weapons. Technicians can produce viruses from a rather small collection of DNA. (In July of last year, scientists reported they had created the polio virus from recipes available on the Internet.) Many viruses can also survive for long periods of time outside living cells, especially in a dry state, where they can easily become airborne. There are no antiviral drugs that have the same striking effectiveness and broad attack range that antibiotics do.

Indeed, we might not even know that an attack had occurred for some time. Most bio-terror experts worry about the silent release of an infectious agent of which we have no hint until the incubation period has passed and the terrorists have fled. Then people would come to emergency rooms with non-specific symptoms that may not immediately trigger the right medical diagnoses. So what's required is a good early warning system. Right now, disease surveillance comes in two principal forms. Passive surveillance usually calls on doctors to take the initiative to report suspicious medical cases to state health authorities. Active surveillance asks public health officials to contact doctors directly to gather the data. Both methods share one inherent handicap: By the time people go to the hospital, an epidemic could have already broken out.

Except for food- and water-borne diseases, the U.S. has no comprehensive system for detecting outbreaks of infectious diseases before people start to get ill. Each state decides which diseases to report to the state health department and which information to pass on to the CDC. Often, chaos results. "There's so much noise, we can hardly pick up the signal," says Frederick Burkle of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency at Johns Hopkins University. Even worse, we don't even have the needed technology: About half of state labs can't do the type of genetic testing that ultimately unearthed West Nile.

A bit of progress has been made: The CDC is encouraging local public health leaders to develop systems for surveying the public for worrisome signs such as unusual diagnoses or spikes in doctor visits--a practice public health officials call syndromic surveillance. New York City has such a system in place: Emergency rooms feed data into a central computer system; software alerts public health officials when it finds clusters of symptoms in one geographic area, unusual combinations of symptoms, or inordinately high numbers of symptoms reported by a particular hospital. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Wake Up and Smell the Bio Threat
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.